From Everywhere to Everywhere (2.0)

This Sunday, I was making my way back from our bi-annual Global Ministries meeting and so took the opportunity to do a brief rewrite of the message I preached at Ingathering:

This quadrennium, I have the honor of serving on our General Board of Global Ministries:

Last fall, in our opening worship, we read the names of the missionaries who have died in the last four years, like we do on All Saints day.  It was holy and humbling to think about all of those people who had spent their lives serving God wherever they were sent.  But I also noticed that they almost all had very white, very Anglo sounding names.

That evening, and since then, I have met missionaries who remind me that the focus of our global ministries has truly shifted.  Katherine fits that traditional model and is from California. She has served through Global Ministries in a variety of far flung places including Japan, Iowa, and now Nepal.

But Alina is a native Bolivian and she is serving in Nicaragua on behalf of Global Ministries.

Luis is from Brazil and will be heading up the new regional Mission Center in Buenos Aires.

Another leader from Brazil will work with the new regional Mission Center in Africa focusing on Portuguese speaking countries.

There is an African American who speaks Japanese who will serve in the new Mission Center in Seoul, South Korea.

And we heard about a missionary from Zimbabwe who is heading to Canada to serve an African refugee community there. 

Our Executive Director of Global Mission Connections was just elected a bishop in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but last year, Bishop Mande wrote:

“Mission used to be thought of as coming from the center (churches in developed countries) and going to the peripheries (people in developing countries). But our sense today is that there isn’t a center anymore—that doing mission lies in mutuality, looking at each other as equal partners and learning from one another. Our heritage from the Wesleyan movement tells us that God’s grace is everywhere and everyone shares in it.” (http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/no-center-no-periphery-a-regional-approach-to-mission/)

 From everywhere… to everywhere…

 

Fundamental to the shift in our global ministries is the recognition of prevenient grace.

The idea that God is moving in our lives long before we know who or what God is.

The idea that grace and truth, beauty and holiness, forgiveness and love are not gifts we enlightened people bring to the heathens, but that we can discover God’s work in the midst of people we meet… whether or not they know God, yet.

 

I think the shift we are experiencing in mission is paralleled in Paul’s ministry in Athens.

As we start the scripture reading today, he is preaching and sharing the good news of Jesus on the streets. And the people don’t get it and they don’t get him.

Some translations say they take him, or brought him, others that they asked him, but if you look to the original Greek the word is “epilambanomai” – to lay hold of or to seize. 

The Common English Bible translates this passage… “they took him into custody.”  The people REALLY don’t get him.  Paul is trying to shove something foreign down their throats.

This is the same word used when Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross as we remembered on Good Friday.  And it’s a word used twice to describe how Jesus grabs hold of someone to rebuke or challenge and heal them.

Paul is not taken to Mars Hill by choice.

He is brought to the council and placed in the middle of the people…

 

And then something in Paul shifts.  His language changes.  

He realizes that speaking of foreign things isn’t making and impact.

He starts to contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ.

He recalls an altar he saw, “To an unknown God” and uses that altar… in a city filled with idols… to begin explaining the God he has come to know.

What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you… God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.

 

In our Wesleyan heritage, the idea of prevenient grace is that it goes before us.  God’s grace is all around us. In God, we live, move, and exist.  Even if we don’t know it yet.  And by grace, some of us reach out and find God.

 But there is another side to prevenient grace… that God doesn’t just sit back and wait to be found, but actively seeks us.

God enters our lives and our stories.

God takes on our flesh.

God speaks our words and breathes our air and tells stories about our lives.

The incarnation was as much a part of the good news as the resurrection.  

And so Paul, at Mars Hill, adopted an incarnational ministry and spoke the words of the people, pointed to their objects, entered their stories, and showed them where he saw God.

Or as he writes in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22)

 

Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, in “Introducing the Missional Church,” claim this is the same type of ministry Jesus commissioned the disciples for – sending them out in pairs into communities, inviting them to live deeply in the midst of strangers… eating what they eat, relying upon their customs and hospitality. It was incarnational ministry.

It is the life so many of our United Methodist missionaries take on – going from everywhere to everywhere.

 

In my work earlier with Imagine No Malaria and now with Global Ministries I am so proud of the fact that we do not seek to impose our ways upon communities, but partner with people and seek mutuality.

We no longer fly into a community and drop off bed nets then leave… we work with local leaders and partners and build community health workers who can help us explore best practices, share with us their customs, and ultimately be that incarnational presence on the ground long after an initial distribution of nets has occurred.

Those same community health workers were also then in place when the Ebola epidemic struck so many Western African countries and we were positioned to make a difference because of the relationships we had already established.

And now, we are applying that same model to our disaster response through UMCOR – not sending in support, but nurturing local leadership to be the disaster response coordinator in places like Mozambique.    

 

Our Global Ministries Board of Directors only meets twice a year to evaluate and govern the work of the staff who do this ministry daily.   And in these past three days when I was in Atlanta, I learned that the biggest challenge and blessing facing our work today is Global Migration.  

65.3 million people today are forcibly living outside of their own country.  

65.3 million.

And while about a quarter of these are refugees fleeing from conflict in their homelands, we are also seeing increasing numbers of people who are being forced to migrate because of climate change.

One of our United Methodist communities in Fiji has been forced to leave their island home because of rising sea waters.  

Changing weather patterns contribute to droughts and immense hunger and poverty that cause others to flee.

But other severe weather events like hurricanes and cyclones are also increasing, both numerically and in strength, sending many from their homes.

So not only are we needing to listen to the people in local contexts, but we are also learning how to listen to the world around us and are positioning ourselves to be in place to respond and be proactive for the disasters that we know are coming that will impact our ministries.  

 

The work of Global Ministries is from everywhere, to everywhere.

The only question I have for you is… why do we leave it to the work of our missionaries?

Why are we not living out the gospel in our communities in the same way?

Because if our call is really from everywhere to everywhere, then we become aware of the reality that our neighborhood is a mission field, too.

Corey Fields writes, “today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.”  (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2013/05/taking-on-flesh-incarnational-theology.html )

Our neighborhood is filled with people from nations all across this world.  And it is filled with people who have been in the United States for generations, but for whom the good news of God has become a distant and unknown reality.  

Our churches need to learn more than we teach.

We need to listen more than we speak.

We need to go out into our neighborhoods more than we sit back and wait.

Like Paul, we need to start paying attention and figuring out how to speak in the languages of the people we encounter.

 

Because only by being present with our communities will we ever see how God is already present and how the people of this place live, move, and exist in God.

 

From everywhere… to everywhere… God is present, God is living, God is breathing new life and hope.

 

Never Go Hungry

We are gathered here tonight, as one community of faith, to give thanks.

Throughout this month, I’ve been preaching about gratitude and giving thanks and one of the things that we have highlighted is that God wants us to give thanks for the differences among us.  It is only by being grateful for someone you disagree with that you can ever move beyond those differences into community.

And our three churches probably don’t agree on everything.  I think that’s a good thing.  We all play a different role in this great big body of Christ.  And we choose to view one another not as competitors, but as partners in the amazing mission and ministry of God in this world. 

For that, I’m grateful.

 

We choose to gather around this time of year in particular because of our national celebration of Thanksgiving. 

While the fuller history of this gathering is far more checkered and controversial, one thing is certain… there were at least three days of community and peace between the pilgrims at Plymouth and the Wampanoag Nation (Wahmp – uh nahg).  The colonists had barely survived the first winter and it was only through the charity and hospitality of these Wampanoag  people that this feast occurred.   They made sure that they would not go hungry.

Our scriptures call us back to an earlier time of Thanksgiving, however. 

Gary Roth draws the connection between the early pilgrims, dependent upon the mercy of the native peoples and the Israelites, who were utterly dependent upon the grace and mercy of God.

As our text from Deuteronomy reminds us – “My father was a wandering Aramean…”  The Israelites were brutally oppressed in Egypt, and God heard their cries of distress.  They were led out of the land of Egypt, sustained by daily bread from heaven, and eventually came to the land promised to them by the Lord.  God made sure that they would not go hungry.

And these Israelites were called to give thanks and to remember that the land and everything it produced was a gift from God. 

The first fruits of the land were set aside as an offering of thanks and the people were called to celebrate their blessings and to share them with all.

 

We, too, are utterly dependent upon God. 

And we, too, have been blessed. 

As Jesus reminds us in the gospel of John, those Israelites wandering in the desert relied upon manna, bread from heaven to sustain them daily. 

We like to imagine that we are self-sufficient and don’t need anyone’s help, but that simply is not true.

Every breath of air that fills our lungs is a gift from God.

Every ray of sunshine and drop of rain that nurtures our crops is a gift from God.

Every grain of wheat is a gift from God.

And so is the bread of life… the love and mercy of God… the incarnation and death and resurrection of Jesus that provided the gift that none of us could even imagine… true life, eternal life, life with God.

Because of God, we will never go spiritually hungry.  And so we must give thanks.

 

The question is, what does a thankful life look like?

What does it mean to live in gratitude, knowing that is only by God’s grace we are sustained?

In Deuteronomy, we discover that one way to live in gratitude is to pay the gift forward again and again. 

The Israelites remembered that their father was a wandering Aramean… and then they looked out at the immigrants and refugees who were among them and shared the first fruits with those in need. 

The book of Leviticus is full of instructions to leave the gleanings of the harvest and the edges of the field for those who were in need.

We live out our thanksgiving by making sure that others have enough.

Enough food.

Enough water.

Enough grace.

Enough love.

Whether it is spiritual or physical bread… God invites us to share it with others as a mark of our gratitude.

 

Talk about the DMARC / CWS offering for the Karin people… A Christian community from Myanmar/Burma that has found a home and a refuge here in the greater Des Moines area. 

We can give thanks today by sharing God’s love and mercy and physical sustenance with these immigrants and refugees in our community. We can make sure that they will never go hungry.

But we also are challenged to think about sustaining gifts that go beyond immediate needs and create life-sustaining conditions.  So the CWS offering will go to help the communities in Myanmar that are most at risk so that they don’t have to flee their homeland in the first place.

 

Let us give thanks to the Lord for all of our blessings.

And let us never cease to pass them on to others.  

Amen.

Hopes and Fears

Awaiting the Already.

As church, we are exploring this book, written by a pastor who served here in Iowa. And he invites us to look at the Christmas story through new lenses.

Over four weeks, we pull apart each gospel: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and explore what they have to tell us about how our story begins.

Last week, we covered Mark in worship… with that strange fellow, John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus… calling for mountains and valleys to be leveled out as we make a straight path for God and us to connect once again.

This week, we find ourselves in one of the more traditional Advent and Christmas stories. Matthew’s version that focuses on Joseph, Herod, and the magi.

Except, this isn’t a story full of good cheer, either.

This week’s gospel story and our reading from the prophets remind us that the world is a tough, scary, dangerous place… but the good news is, God is with us. Emmanuel, God with us, has come and is coming into the midst of the struggles of our day.

***

In our Advent candle reading this morning, we hear a story from the prophets about how God is with us, even in the worst moments of our lives.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are being persecuted for their faith, sent to burn in a firey furnace, and yet our God, Immanuel, God with us, is with them.

Their story echoes the reminder of DeVega in the second chapter of the book, “no matter what you are going through, God is in it.” (p.42)

[11:00 candle reading here]

***

God was with Shardrach, Mesach, and Abednego in the furnace.

God was with Joseph when he got the news that his fiancée was pregnant and the baby wasn’t his.

God was with the Magi, guiding them along the way.

God was and is and will be with us no matter what it is we are facing in the world today.

 

And the world today is not as merry and bright as the Christmas decorations in the store fronts would have us believe.

As DeVega writes: “wars, brokenness, violence, oppression, heartache, grief, and betrayal do not magically disappear [this time of year]. There is too much darkness in this world simply to gloss over it and pretend it is not there, all for the sake of secularized merriment and plastic good cheer.” (p. 32)

 

And friends, there has been far too much darkness in these past few weeks.

The Paris terrorist attacks.

Suicide bombings in Beiruit.

Lives lost in Baghdad during a funeral.

Marketplace shootings in Nigeria.

Continued conflict between Palestine and Israel.

A shooting rampage that ends with two police officers and a civilian killed in Colorado Springs.

And these are just the disasters on the world stage that garner media attention.

They do not speak to the personal tragedies we have experienced in the loss of loved ones, new diagnoses, or broken relationships.

 

There is so much darkness, so many reasons to fear and cower and hide.

 

We are not the first to have experienced pain and loss, threats to our lives and reigns of terror.

As DeVega writes: “there is nothing about our allegiance to God that makes us immune to heartache and disappointment.” (p.33) I would add that our faith sometimes puts us directly in the path of danger when we step out and take risks out of love or compassion or others seek to destroy our faith.

In our gospel reading, Joseph was faced with such a trial. When he found out Mary was pregnant, he could quietly break off the engagement and excuse himself from any shame or blame… OR he could himself be subject to ridicule by staying with her.

Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego could have renounced their faith when it was challenged and they were threatened with death… OR they could continue to proclaim boldly the name of the Lord and be thrown into the furnace.

And then, the holy family: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus found themselves directly in the line of fire when Herod realized there was a threat to his reign and sought to kill all who might stand in his way. They were forced to leave everything they knew and flee in the middle of the night and seek refuge in a strange land.

 

We are called to be people of hope.

Yet, where is the hope in these stories?

Where is our hope today?

 

Hope is not naïve.

Hope is more than wishful thinking.

Hope is paying attention to Immanuel, God with us, and remembering that we are not alone.

Hope is recommitting ourselves every moment to be God’s people… even in the midst of darkness, disappointment, tragedy, and fiery trials.

 

Hope means that when fear rears its ugly head, we hold fast to the promise that God is with us.

And in these times of trial, Immanuel, God-with-us, whispers in our ear: Do Not Be Afraid.

 

So Joseph stays with Mary.

Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego go willingly into the furnace.

Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus pack up all of their belongings and without fear leave everything they knew to risk a dangerous journey to Egypt.

 

Yes, sometimes hope means seeking refuge somewhere else, because we have faith that God is with us even far from home and that someday God will bring us back to where we belong.

 

I have to be honest… that part of the story is the one that gives my heart the biggest pause.

I find it so hard to see the hope in a story where innocent children are being massacred.

It is so hard to see the hope when hundreds of people lose their lives to terror.

And I guess that is the “already but not yet” part of this story.

Because hope is the reminder that in this difficult passage about the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, God set in motion a plan to protect the one who would save us all.

We are still waiting for the world to be saved.

We are still waiting for the taking of innocent lives to end.

We are still grieving and mourning and weeping with the mothers of Ramah and the mothers of Paris and Bagdad and Beirut and Yolo and Colorado Springs.

 

The only reason we have to hope is because we know the end of the story lies in the hands of our God.

God doesn’t promise to snap fingers and fix the problem.

God doesn’t promise it will immediately get better.

God doesn’t offer platitudes.

Our God tells us to stop being afraid.

It is a challenge for our faith.

As DeVega writes, God recognizes “that fear is an understandable response.”

And, friends, I have seen a lot of responses of fear in these past few weeks.

Fear that causes people lash out at those who look different from them.

Fear that causes us to shut our borders to refugees, turning our backs on those who need the most help.

Fear that labels and divides us from our neighbors.

Yet those very words, “Do Not Be Afraid,” are “a call to resistance, and a refusal to let the trauma of external circumstances consume [us] with fear and disillusionment.” (p. 34)

 

I’ve been pretty passionate and outspoken in the last couple of weeks about our response as a nation to Syrian refugees.

And that is because I firmly believe that hope is refusing to live in fear.

And what troubles me the most about the way we as a state and as a country have responded is that we are purely acting out of an emotional reaction of fear.

We have one of the most stringent processes for accepting refugees in the world… a process that was strengthened after our own country was attacked on 9/11.

It is simply a false choice to have to choose between safety and security and doing the compassionate thing.

 

As DeVega writes in his book, “the imminent arrival of Jesus” is not an excuse to turn our backs “from the miseries of this world, but to confront them squarely in the face. In fact, Matthew would not only discourage us from finding Jesus apart from our world, or apart from our time; he would invite us to find the presence of Jesus right in the midst of this world, right now.” (p. 37)

And the most vulnerable, the least of these in our day and age are those who have fled from a reign of terror in their own land and are now seeking compassion and welcome in far away places.

Hope is recommitting ourselves every moment to be God’s people… even in the midst of darkness, disappointment, tragedy, and fiery trials.

DeVega believes that the core of Matthew’s entire gospel is this: “If you are waiting for Jesus to come back some day, then stop waiting. You can find him right here on earth, right now, at this very moment. All you have to do is look in the eyes of the marginalized and the oppressed.” (p.38) Today, all we have to do is look in the eyes of a refugee from South Sudan or Syria or Bhutan.

 

Hope is refusing to be afraid.

Hope is answering the call and recommitting ourselves to being God’s people even when we are afraid.

Hope is reaching out to the least of these in the world… because it is in them, that we find our savior and our salvation.

 

Amen.

J&MES: Faith & Action

Format Image

This month in worship, we are going to be focusing on the book of James in the New Testament.

It is all the way in the back of our bibles… just after Hebrews and right before a couple of shorter letters that lead into Revelation.

This book is actually a letter written by James to many churches.

And while I encourage you to read the whole letter… it’s only five chapters… we are going to be focusing on a just a few of James’s main points.

Sometimes, we are asked to embrace the both/ands of life… like faith & action.

Sometimes, James will show us how the &’s in our life… like blessing & cursing… are keeping us from being faithful.

 

Will you pray with me:

Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts and minds be holy and pleasing to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

 

You must be doers of the word and not only hearers.

You must study the word and then put it into practice in your life.

 

Sometimes, James gets a bad rap. In fact, Martin Luther… the same guy that nailed up his demands on the door of the church and started the reformation… wanted to leave this letter out of his bible precisely because of this theme of faith & action.

We talk a lot about faith. We talk about how the only thing we have to do to receive God’s love is to believe. To trust. That faith alone matters. There is nothing we can DO to earn salvation.

The problem is not that James disagrees.

It is that James defines faith a little bit differently.

He doesn’t see it as an either/or. It’s not that we choose between faith and action to get to salvation.

It’s not even that it’s a two-step process. First, faith…. Then, works.

No, in James’s understanding they are the same thing. You simply can’t have one without the other.

Faith, when it is alive, can be seen in the works we do and in the ways we treat one another.

Put another way… actions are the fruit that grow on a healthy and living tree of faith.

 

I had a whole sermon in the works that basically took that point and ran with it…

But I realized yesterday that it was just me, saying a whole lot more than I needed to say on the topic.

 

James is pretty clear (and this is the Message translation):

Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

 

I was going to stand up here today and give you a whole lot of God-talk.

But we need some God-acts today.

We need to see where we have simply been looking on and praying and wishing people well without living out our faith.

 

And I’m thinking specifically about those who are naked and hungry and hurting today.

I’m thinking about the images of children being washed up on shore we saw this week.

I’m thinking about the millions of families who are fleeing from the violence in Syria.

According to Mercy Corps, more than 11 million people are displaced.

More than half of those who have been forced to flee their homes are under the age of 18.

4 million Syrians have registered or are awaiting registration with the United Nations High Commission of Refugees.

(Read more from Mercy Corps here)

And hundreds of thousands of them are risking a dangerous and costly trip across the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe. One man, Abu Jana, told the Guardian, “Right now Syrians consider themselves dead. Maybe not physically, but psychologically and socially [a Syrian] is a destroyed human being, he’s reached the point of death. So I don’t think that even if they decided to bomb migrant boats it would change people’s decision to go.”

 

We have seen how our own ancestors in faith, like Abraham, Lot, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees themselves… fleeing from persecution, famine, violence, and war.

And because of their experiences, we have been told over and over again in our scriptures about our call to care for immigrants and refugees.

Exodus 22: You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19: You shall not strip your vineyards bare… leave them for the poor and the alien.

Leviticus 24: The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Psalm 146: The Lord watches over the strangers…

Isaiah 16: Be a refuge to the outcasts of Moab.

Malachi 3: The messenger will bear witness against those who thrust aside the alien.

Each of these passages uses the Hebrew word nokri (nok-ree’), which can be foreigner, alien, or stranger…

And when we get to the New testament, we hear over and over again the call to reach out to the strangers among us.

Matthew 25: I was a stranger and you welcomed me

Romans 12: The Mark of the true Christian…. Extend hospitality to strangers…

 

Will we simply hear the words? Or will we live out our faith?

 

Yesterday, I read a blog post from a woman named Ann Voskamp and I decided to rewrite most of this sermon.

Because she reminded me that this is not a new problem… and that I have been sitting back and not doing much for a while now.

And I felt after reading her words like the person James was talking about in his letter… who hears the word of God but doesn’t do it. Who listens and then forgets.

And what I love about her post is I felt like I have something I could do.

Like there are things WE can do.

Ways for the church to be the church and live out our faith.

 

The first thing we can do is simply understand the problem and let it move you. Maybe some of the facts I have shared today, or the stories you have seen and heard this week are part of that for you.

 

Second, while we may not be able to physically make a journey to Syria or the Mediterranean to make a difference, we can advocate for our government to open the doors to more refugees who are seeking a life for themselves and their families.

You can write a letter to one of our congressional leaders.

You can sign a petition at whitehouse.gov for our country to resettle Syrian refugees here.

And after worship today, you can take a picture of yourself with this sign (#refugeeswelcome), post it on social media, and encourage others to share the word with our government as well. In fact, I encourage everyone who wants to do so, to come back up to the front after worship so we can take some pictures together.

 

Third, you can support the organizations that are on the front lines making a difference.

Doctors without Borders.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which is a family foundation that has launched a private ship to rescue people at sea.

World Vision.

Our very own United Methodist Committee on Relief.

The list goes on and on and a number of different organizations are included in Ann’s blog. If you are so moved, choose one that inspires you and give financially to support their efforts.

 

The last thing that we can think about doing…. is to consider sponsoring a refugee family yourself.

I was amazed last winter as we celebrated the life of Evie Surface to learn about her efforts to help settle refugees from Vietnam here in the United States.

She was just one person, but she believed that Jesus meant it when he said that we were to love the widow and orphan and stranger among us.

Here in Des Moines, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants helps to resettle refugees and they have a wide range of opportunities for you to give of your time and energy to help folks who have sought home here in our community.

 

Hearing and Doing.

Faith and Action.

 

“It is the seamless unity of believing and doing” the Message translation of James tells us. (2:25-26)

 

We have heard the word this morning. A word of calling to reach out in love to the last and the lost and the least in this world.

And as that seed is planted in our hearts, may it bear fruit in the world.

Amen.